Wednesday, July 27

From Trout Fishing in America, by Richard Brautigan:

I had walked for miles and miles until I came to the rock under the tree and sat down. Every time a car would come by, about once every ten minutes, I would get up and stick out my thumb as if it were a bunch of bananas and then sit back down on the rock again.

The old shack had a tin roof colored reddish by years of wear, like a hat worn under the guillotine. A corner of the roof was loose and a hot wind blew down the river and the loose corner clanged in the wind.

A car went by. An old couple. The car almost swerved off the road and into the river. I guess they didn't see many hitchhikers up there. The car went around the corner with both of them looking back at me.

I had nothing else to do, so I caught salmon flies in my landing net. I made up my own game. It went like this: I couldn't chase after them. I had to let them fly to me. It was something to do with my mind. I caught six.

A little ways up from the shack was an outhouse with its door flung violently open. The inside of the outhouse was exposed like a human face and the outhouse seemed to say, "The old guy who built me crapped in here 9,745 times and he's dead now and I don't want anyone else to touch me. He was a good guy. He built me with loving care. Leave me alone. I'm a monument now to a good ass gone under. There's no mystery here. That's why the door's open. If you have to crap, go in the bushes like the deer."

"Fuck you," I said to the outhouse. "All I want is a ride down the river."

Friday, July 22

So I got into a bit of a disagreement with my Ubuntu install the other month. It went something like this:

Ubuntu: You should upgrade me to the latest stable version, Natty Narwhal.

me: You know, I've heard some things about —

Ubuntu: Naw man it'll be fine.

me: Ok, I'm gonna trust you this time. We've been getting along ok.

Somewhat later...

me: Look, I'm a little concerned about this. Nothing works. Why does nothing work?

Ubuntu: Fuck you.

I decided I was switching back to Debian. It hasn't been a completely smooth transition. Sometimes Debian is all like "I don't know what you're talking about that software hasn't been updated since 2007". Sometimes Debian doesn't want to talk to your wireless hardware.

Still, I haven't regretted it. As operating systems go, this is still the one that feels the homiest and least painful to me.

*

In some ways, operating system choice is a considerably more vexed question these days than it was in 2005 or so. The apparently suicidal impulses driving the latest Ubuntu release might yet abate, but even if it returns to form as the Linux your mom can use, this episode has been revealing. The free desktop is in a considerably shakier state than one would like. The whole project of libertarian1 software feels more vulnerable than it has in ages.

Then again, this may be a distraction from where the real action is these days. Between the web and phones, the whole question of openness and power in software has scaled way, way beyond what OS runs on any given device. Every piece of device-level system software in the world could conform to the Debian Free Software Guidelines, running on open hardware with nary a proprietary device driver in sight, and most of the software people are aware of using would still be closed.2

The hippies usually win, sooner or later, but the victory has a strange way of being subsumed into the scaffolding of the next system that will demand their opposition.

 

1 Note lower-case "l".

2 Sun was right, 15 years too late for their empire to have become the one we're going to have to subvert: The network is the computer. Now that we have built that reality (on open code and open protocols!), we're going to have to face up to its pathologies.

Not that I want to claim the modern dispensation is rotten through and through. A lot has actually been achieved, and there is a profoundly democratic/anarchic element to the modern network even in places where traditionalist standards of technical openness are almost entirely unmet.

Monday, July 18

Does this look to anyone sort of like a coherent idea?

$ s j cat foo.json bar.json | s j sort -u | s x > bar.xml

...the notion being that s is a wrapper which parses various kinds of structured input (JSON/YAML/XML/s-expressions/etc.), passes this to utilities which conceptually parallel various unix commands, and spits it back out as structured output.

The longer I look at this, the fuzzier the idea seems.

For one thing, it's not even entirely clear what the structured equivalent of cat(1) is, let alone things like wc(1) or grep(1). Most unix-style utilities are built around pretty minimal and low-abstraction expectations of structure in their IO. You deal with files, lines, columns, characters, etc. The real equivalents in terms of very structured data might be constructs you find in modern programming languages. Perl's foreach, map, grep, join, split, etc., come to mind. (Of course, there's an obvious unix-like flavor to many of those, so maybe I'm not too far off base.)

Saturday, July 16

William Gibson, interviewed in The Paris Review #197:

The sort of narratives I don't trust, as a reader, smell of homework.

Wednesday, July 13

So I was thinking more about e-mail, and as it happens I'm in the middle of one of those periodic exercises in realizing that your backup situation is on the verge of disaster and figuring out what to do about it.

Which is to say that for some reason I stayed up 'til 4am reading my e-mail from about 1998-2001.

I would like to publicly offer my apologies to the following groups:

  • Most of the people I talked to about something called "Linux" any time before about 2003.
  • Anyone I have ever given writing advice.
  • Everyone who has read one of the first two hundred or so poems I wrote.

Tuesday, July 12

Of course, any time you find yourself reading a list of "myths" or "misconceptions", there's a fair chance you're being sold something.

Monday, July 11

Seven Misunderstandings About Classical Architecture (via Trivium):

... People ask, 'How can you find men to do your class of work these days?' as if men no longer can or want to produce skilled work. The truth is that whenever there is good work to be done there are men to do it. We have never had difficulty in obtaining first class joinery; we prepare full size details and specify the quality, and provided a reputable builder is doing the work it normally needs no further explanation. The same goes for plasterers, bricklayers, slaters, stonemasons and even woodcarvers and coppersmiths. Generally, I find that the more intricate the detail, the more willing the tradesmen are to take on the work.

Sunday, July 10

It's been the kind of day where at some point one had better plans, but in the end what one does is lay about one's basement apartment acting out some stereotype of reclusive dorkitude.

Me, I drank half a bottle of Evan Williams, ate a box of bunny-shaped mac & cheese, and contemplated a dead Science Fiction writer while messing around with the operating system on my laptop.

So I walked into Boulder Book Store around 10:15 on Friday night, the pleasures of sitting alone in a Pearl Street bar having pretty well exhausted themselves. Lately I've been edging back towards a reading habit, by way of people like Ian McDonald and Charlie Stross. Fiction — SF in particular — seems to have something to say to me again. So it probably makes sense that I picked up the first volume of this authorized Heinlein biography, by William H. Patterson, Jr.

"Authorized biography" is one of those phrases I usually read as a warning, and there's definitely an element of hagiography in this one. Patterson's ideological commitments don't appear to contain many surprises. That said, having gotten a bit past the part where Heinlein is working on Upton Sinclair's Depression-era campaign for Governor of California, this is fascinating stuff. The research clearly went deep, and every couple of pages some incident or idea crops up that I remember from the fiction.

Tuesday, July 5

channels

I was standing at the airport bus stop the other day, and (as one does nowadays) killing time on my phone, when it occurred to me that I really miss e-mail.

I had just gotten off a plane and was doing that bored compulsive nerd thing where you cycle between inputs in case anything has happened in the whole three or four hours you were out of touch with the net. Check a feedreader, check Twitter, check GitHub, check the sites where you've been arguing with people, check mail, and so on. In a couple of these places, I had messages I cared about from real people. In e-mail, I had a mass mailing asking me for money, output from a cron job on a machine I've been ignoring for at least a year, and a notice from Twitter that a user with an avatar of a generic hot girl and an obviously machine-generated name had started following me.

I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but my personal mail has been reduced from a medium of direct communication to a mechanized ghost town of a meta-channel, an authentication and notification backplane for web applications and spambots.

I suppose I first noticed this around the time I decamped from Facebook. It's part of the reason I went sort of evangelical about my dislike of walled-garden social networks. And Facebook alone has driven a lot of it — where people used to write mail, now they make wall posts, or send direct messages using its clunky, halfassed internal re-implementation of e-mail. But there's plenty else at work, I'm sure. On the temporal-immediacy and granularity scales, revealed preferences seem to shift more and more towards media at the realtime and fine-grained end of the spectra. (Not to mention context-dependent and disposable. Arguably the entire Internet is becoming IRC ca. 1996.)

All of this is what it is. Privatization and the proprietary entrapment of communication on the web — the movement away from open protocols and distributed weak-authority systems — should worry us much as ever. But if people want immediacy and social context for what they're saying to one another, well, they've got their reasons. Besides which, ask any sysadmin of your acquaintance and there's a fair chance you'll hear at profane, embittered length what a sloppy, vulnerable, gnarled mess of a system Internet mail is in fact.

Still, I think something good and necessary to a literate culture is in eclipse right now. It's not the formal trappings of e-mail, as much affection as I feel for some of them. It's the basic act of correspondence — the essential elements of a mode that can thrive as much in a monochrome terminal window as written in ballpoint on paper.

monday, july 4

happy birthday the USA,
you great ambiguous beast